Farewells: Malcolm X (1925 - 1965)

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Lowell George
Malcolm X
Malcolm X
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19,1925. His father was a Baptist preacher who supported Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. When Malcolm was four, the family moved to Lansing, Michigan, where Earl Little planned to run a store while continuing his preaching.

A group of white supremacists, who called themselves the "Black Legion", learned of Earl's efforts to organize Lansing's black community and became irate. Late one night, while the family slept, the Black Legion set fire to their home. Earl moved his family to East Lansing. When a city ordinance was passed forbidding blacks to leave their homes after sundown, the Littles relocated to a small farmhouse outside of town.

Two years later, Earl Little was found dead on the trolley tracks in East Lansing. One side of his head had been crushed, and a streetcar had run over him, sev­ering his body in half. Despite the police department's claim that Earl's death was an accident, Malcolm believed his father was murdered by the white supremacists.

Following Earl's death, Louise Little tried unsuccessfully to support her eight children. Unable to find steady work, she applied for general assis­tance. Malcolm started stealing candy and fruit from neighborhood stores. He was caught several times, and finally, the court decided that Louise was unable to control Malcolm and had him removed from her charge. A couple who knew Malcolm volunteered to take him into their home. Two years later, Louise was committed to a state mental institution, where she remained for 26 years.

After eighth grade Malcolm dropped out of school and traveled to Boston, where his older sister Ella lived. Later, he worked his way to New York City and dramatically changed his appearance. He wore zoot suits and dyed his straightened hair red, earning himself the nickname Detroit Red. To support his growing drug habit, Malcolm sold marijuana, ran numbers, and pimped for prostitutes. After his life was threatened, he was forced to leave New York and return to Boston, where he organized a burglary ring,  which the police eventually uncovered.

In 1946 Malcolm was sentenced a 10-year prison term. Life in prison had an unusual effect on Malcolm X. He used the time to educate himself, spending many hours in the prison library, where studied history, learned the fundamentals of grammar, and increased vocabulary. He was also introduced to a new religion, the Nation of Islam. Malcolm's younger brother Reginald, who was already a member, spent hours telling Malcolm about Allah. Much of what he had to say confused Malcolm, but two phrases took root in his mind: "The white man is the devil," and "the black man is brainwashed."

After talking with his brother, Malcolm reviewed his life. He remembered how his family had been terrorized by white supremacists, the intrusive white social workers who helped commit his mother to a mental institution, his exploitation at the hands of white employers, the harassment received from white police officers, and the stiff jail sentence passed down by a white judge. Malcolm learned that if he wanted to join the Nation Islam, he would have to accept its theology and submit completely to the authority of its leader, Elijah Muhammad.

Inspired by the new direction his life was taking, Malcolm wrote Elijah Muhammad a heartfelt letter. Elija Muhammad wrote back, welcoming Malcolm to the faith. He instructed Malcolm to drop his Christian surname, which his ancestors inherited from a white slave owner, and to replace it with the letter X, to symbolize that his true African name had been lost. In 1952 Malcolm was paroled from prison after serving six years, and rather than returning to crime, Malcolm committed himself to learning more about his new religion.

In 1958 he married a Muslim sister name Betty Shabazz. Together they had four children: all girls, they were named Attilah, Quiblah, Ilyassah and Amilah. Over the next sever years, Malcolm X developed into one of the Nation of Islam's most powerfu speakers, attracting thousands of African Americans to the fold. Malcolm X's charismatic personality also attracted the attention of the white media.

But unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who believed in non-violent tactics to achieve equal rights for blacks, Malcolm X favored the use of arms and proposed a revolutionary program that would create a separate society for blacks. Malcolm's relationship with the media displeased Elijah Muhammad. He felt the Nation of Islam's message was being overshadowed by Malcolm X's newfound celebrity.

Malcolm was alarmed by reports that paternity suits were being filed against Elijah Muhammad by two women who had previously worked as his secretaries. Anxious to get to the root of the rumors, Malcolm met with the two women. They confirmed that Elijah had fathered their children. They also warned Malcolm to be cautious in his dealings with Elijah Muhammad because he had predicted that Malcolm X would one day turn against him.

In a private meeting with Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad did not deny the accusations. Instead, he justified his behavior by comparing himself with such biblical figures as David and Noah, who also suffered moral lapses. Elijah's response left Malcolm X dissatisfied and contributed to his growing disenchantment with the Nation of Islam.

In November 1963 Malcolm's candidness with reporters provided Elijah with an excuse to sideline him. Referring to President Kennedy's assasination, Malcolm called the murder a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." The public was outraged by Malcolm's comments, prompting Elijah Muhammad to relieve him of his duties for 90 days. Feeling betrayed the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X decided not to return. He announced plans to organize his own movement, to be called "Muslim Mosque". The new sect was based in New York City and had about fifty charter members.

Malcolm X told the media that the organization's goals were to "eliminate political oppression, the economic exploitation, and the social degradation suffered daily by 22 million Afro-Americans." He invited blacks everywhere to join him in his new crusade. In response to Malcolm's announcement, Muhammad wrote in his bi-weekly newspaper, "Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm." In the next few months several attempts were made on Malcolm's life. This did not surprise him: one can get out without trouble. This thing with me will be resolved in death and violence."

In April 1964 Malcolm X made a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Islamic city. The trip had a profound effect on him. He was greeted warmly by muslims of all nationalities, including white Eurasians. Malcolm realized that brotherhood included "people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one. It has proved to me the power of One God." In an open letter to the press describing his pilgrimage, Malcolm wrote that he was "spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors." In the future Malcolm would judge people by their words and actions, not by the pigment of their skin.

On Sunday, February 21, 1965, at 2:00 pm Malcolm X arrived a Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, where he held weekly meetings. Four hundred people were already seated, waiting to hear his address. Facing the audience, Malcolm X uttered a traditional Muslim greeting, "Asaikum, brothers and sisters!" Suddenly, a disturbance broke out several rows back. "Get your hands out of my pockets!" a man shouted. "Don't be messing wit pockets!" Meanwhile, a man stood up in the front row. He lifted a sawn off shotgun and fired a shot into Malcolm's chest. At that same moment other armed men appeared in the aisle and also fired shots at him.

While the assailants fled, several aides rushed to Malcolm's side. He was taken to a hospital, but Malcolm X was already dead. Outside the ballroom one of the gunmen, Talmadge Hayer, was apprehended by police. Although the Nation of Islam was suspected of being behind Malcolm's murder, he denied having any involvement with the organization. He also claimed to know the other two gunmen, who were also convicted of the murder of Malcom X.
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